Friday, December 30, 2011

Outpourings Of The Soul

Blessings, those building blocks of prayer, are more than vague words to recite. Prayer is our response to the lament of the soul. When we’re alone, when we’re frightened, we reach out in prayer to the Holy One of Being for a helping hand. We don’t need to wait until we’re in the synagogue to pray; we can pray anywhere. Standing on line in a supermarket, sitting in traffic, or waiting to meet someone are all appropriate moments for prayer. A rabbi once asked me if I knew what telephone booths were for. The answer came as no surprise as he closed the door behind him and pulling a prayer book from his coat pocket. I remember the days when Temple Emanuel in New York City would broadcast Friday evening services for the homebound. I thought it was a great idea. People should be able to pray whenever the impulse to communicate with God compels them.
Around the end of the 1st Century, amid the many issues facing the Tannaim (the early sages of the Talmud), the question of whether to sanction personal prayer or communal prayer met with heated debate. The matter was settled with the decision that communal prayer would take precedence, but with the understanding that the order of prayer would be subject to continuous revision. That explains prayers like Tahanun (supplication), the section of the daily service that was added in response to the longing for personal prayer. Personal prayer has always been known to exist, and some of it has been handed down through the ages. Here is an example of one attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: Wherever I go—only You! Wherever I stand—only You! Just You; again You! Always You! You, You, You! When things are good, You! When things are bad—You! You, You, You!
For many of us, composing personal prayers is difficult; after all, what words can we devise to address the King of kings? The siddur ( the Jewish prayer book) comes to our aid with selections that are apropos to special occasions or many occasions. Upon arising each morning, there’s Modeh Ani, “I gratefully thank you, O living and eternal King, for you have returned my soul within me with compassion—abundant is Your faithfulness; and then there’s the Kriat Shema at bedtime. During the day, the siddur provides a wide selection of blessings for all kinds of circumstances: upon tasting food or drink and upon witnessing phenomenal events. Prayer books provide a wide selection of uplifting, poetic Psalms—“Inside Divine wings you are nestled, beneath God’s pinions you are housed, a shield embracing is God’s truth. You shall not fear from nighttime terror, from the arrows that soar by day, from pestilence that stalks in the gloom, from feverish demons of the noon. A thousand dangers fall away beside you, yes, ten thousand of them at your right. To you, they can’t draw near.”(from the 91st Psalm). Most prayer books also contain sections of supplementary readings that can serve as uplifting words for fitting moments
If the prayer book selections don’t satisfy the outpourings of your soul, you might consider a formula such as the following to compose songs directly from your heart. Choose one area in your life for which you can use some spiritual help or support. Just as one would present himself before a king or some special dignitary, you could present yourself with some words of introduction. For an introductory remark, you might choose one from the following: May it be Your will, O Lord our God; He who makes blessing, bless (add your name, preferably in Hebrew); or O merciful God, who answers the down trodden, answer me.

Now you have to state your case and ask for a blessing. Remember you can only ask for the needs of the soul, like fortitude, courage or the strength to face up to predicaments. You can also declare your thanks for a blessing you have already received. Or you can ask for blessings that come to us inherently—wisdom, repentance, healing, and forgiveness.
Finally, take leave of your sojourn with the holy One, with parting remarks. Blessed are you O Lord, who bestows compassion upon your people Israel; or May you be pleased to grant the satisfaction of our desires; or May He who makes peace in the highest, bring this peace upon us and upon all Israel. Then say, Amen
I arrived in Jerusalem for the very first time in March 1984, in the late, orange tinted afternoon, the last day of Purim. The streets were littered with streamers and confetti, from the earlier celebrations. Banners still festooned the lampposts. The next day it rained. I was supposed to meet this rabbi that day, who was recommended to me by our rabbi here. I met with him at the Diaspora Yeshiva, on the West Side of the Old City, that drizzly Monday afternoon. I complained resentfully that on my first vacation day, it was raining. Don’t complain, he admonished me, “When it rains in Israel, it’s a blessing” Blessings rain down from above. We can petition God for rain, or consolation, or healing or anything else, but in the end it’s all according to His will.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Healing Power of Chanukah

Chanukah takes place at a time when the days are shortest and darkness prevails over light, when the sap rests in the roots, and animals sleep for the winter. Now the soul is at the depths of its annual cycle and our feminine receptive attribute is at its peak, like that of the evening of Shabbat. Perhaps that's why the female motif of Chanukah predominates, with its tales of Jewish heroines and the restriction of women performing work while the candles glow only at night. Only in a setting like this can the intuitive expression of Chanukah come alive.

Chanukah is not a Torah mandated holiday, but the Rabbi's of the Talmud, in their wisdom, realized that something was missing in the succession of Jewish holidays. The major festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot were all agricultural celebrations, as described in the Torah. There is an active energy about these festivals, reminiscent of the activity of sowing, planting and harvesting. But in winter, we mainly stay at home lighting the menorah on each of the eight nights of Chanukah. It's a quiet time like that of nature outside.

We celebrate a miracle that took place over 2000 years ago. A miracle that caused a flask filled with enough oil to burn for one day, to burn for eight days. Why should a miracle, an event that defies the natural order and disobeys the law of cause and effect take place, if not for the will of God? Within that thought lies the seed of transcendence, the potential for healing and the promise of new possibilities for us.

Jewish mystics and visionaries always understood, even to this day, that the entire sequence of holidays and festivals follow a path of body and mind healing, emotional development and spiritual growth, all of which are intrinsically interrelated. Much like the flask of oil that miraculously burned for eight days, miracles of restoring shattered lives happen every day.

The healing path is intimately connected to the agricultural year that begins with Pesach, acknowledging the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent escape from bondage. As we read further into Exodus, we find that the Israelites hadn't found freedom yet; the fear of survival in the desert dominated their minds--anxieties of insufficient food and water or the horror of perishing in the desert. So what really happened on the first day of Passover was that the Israelites for the first time became aware that freedom was possible. That's all! Awareness is an extremely powerful tool, and the first step that leads to physical, emotional or spiritual growth,. The first step in all healing is to become aware of the pain, which in some cases is enough to effect healing.

Seven weeks after Pesach, we arrive at the summer festival of Shavuot. Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple. Spiritually, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, or the Revelation when God first revealed Himself to the fledgling Jewish nation. At that time the people were ordered to accept the teaching, the laws and the precepts outlined in the Torah. Acceptance became the second principle in the path. Not only did they agree to accept the laws and commandments, but also implicit is that we must agree to accept all of the uncertainties that come before us each day, both the positive and the negative.

Finally, the Festival of Sukkot enters in the fall on the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays in our year to one of the most joyous. Sukkot is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred to in Jewish literature as Z'man Simchateinu , the Season of our Rejoicing. Agriculturally, we celebrate the bounty of the harvest. On the spiritual level, healing takes place through rectification, the integration of all the spiritual work that we have done for ourselves during the preceding year.

In the cycle of time, the Jewish holidays bring us the opportunity to remember the spiritual and restorative work that we need to do for ourselves. We're not expected to change ourselves from one holiday to the next, but each one cues us into yet another aspect of the healing process. Just as the Torah is reread year after year and when the holiday sare observed, we try to grow spiritually a little more each year.

At Chanukah, one strand of thought says that we should not endorse the military victory of the Maccabees; they say only the miracle of the oil properly restored the appropriate glory to the Temple. But if we understand that the Selucid Greeks are merely metaphors for the real enemy that lurks in our souls, who defile our inner personal Temple, we then fight for a more noble cause. The military victory represents the culmination of the battle we fought all year against the enemies of our souls…illness, despair, depression.

At this particular Chanukah when the dark clouds of winter loom overhead, we need as much light as we can get. If every one of us would light one candle on each of the eight nights perhaps we can pave the way for a bright new future. It is said that miracles are not necessarily supernatural happenings. All of life is a miracle. Every person we know—our friends and our family—are truly miraculous, and the light of Chanukah allows us to see our miracle

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sealed in the Book of Life

Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar year is a time when I think seriously whether all our self-denial on that day actually secures our inscription in the Book of Life. We greet each other with L'shanah Tovah Tichatemu, may you be sealed for a good year. Is it just a matter of sitting passively in shul all day, denying our vital needs, or is there something that we can actively do to assure inscription?

In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we find the moving prayer Untane Tokef that asks,"who shall live and who shall die" and answers, "repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree". I can understand repentance and prayer, but how come charity? Charity means giving or for-giving---in favor of giving. To forgive another is being in favor of giving something to yourself.

T'shuvah, returning to the presence of God, which in some imprecise way became defined as repentance, is the hallmark of the High Holidays. Somehow repentance is connected to forgiveness. We pray for forgiveness for our sins against God; created in the image of God, we have to forgive those who hurt us and we have to ask forgiveness of those we knowingly hurt. There must be things we do wrong, even though at the time, we were not aware of it, for which we have to make amends, atone---an eye for an eye.

Atoning for sins is the first step in the process of making T'shuvah, of becoming constantly mindful of God, a process that began at Rosh Hashanah. Atonement centers around the sacrifices that the High Priest performed in the days of the Temple. Sacrifices, like the ritual of the scapegoat, elaborated in the Yom Kippur liturgy contains the same sort of magic as those sacrifices that took us out of Egypt at Passover. The first atonement took place on Yom Kippur when Moses prayed on Mt. Sinai for forgiveness of the sin of the Golden Calf, the archetypal sin. Like Moses we are expected to expiate our sins, to pay for our misdeeds through prayer and sacrifice. We sin unknowingly and unwittingly against God because we are spiritually insensitive to His plan for the universe and our individual role in it.

When I first came to comprehend Yom Kippur on a deeper level, I realized I had to reflect on prayer and fasting more seriously, rather than just behaving spartan for the entire day. I began to listen more carefully and to visualize as the chazzan portrayed the role of the high priest, ritually reenacting the drama of making expiation for the House of Israel with his entry into the Holy of Holies and ordained sacrifices. It was then that I knew that the mystery of atonement lay hidden in the Mussaf Amidah for Yom Kippur.

I probed into the nature of sin. I found that cheyt, the Hebrew term for sin, finds its roots in the idea of missing the mark, like an archer inaccurately releasing his arrow. If we think of our relationship with God as our target, a sin is missing the mark, pointing to something other than God. I used to think that sin is an action morally condemned like cheating or lying. Now I know sin as being out of tune with the universe, not hearing the subtle Divine messages that are constantly impinging upon us or worshipping other gods like money, for instance, for what it can buy.

Then I wondered whether I am confessing my personal sins or are we confessing the sins for all Israel like the high priest? It seems as if confession and the other forms of self-denial for Yom Kippur make us more humble and vulnerable to the possibility of starting the New Year with a clean slate. Maybe that's what being sealed into the Book of Life actually means. The Al Cheyt confession, the catalog of sins that we admit to even if we have no knowledge of doing wrong, is our way of making the sacrifice that compensates for the sins we sinned.

The Mishnah on Yom Kippur offers some discussion on fasting; the Torah requires that we practice self-denial but mentions nothing about fasting; somehow the later sages concluded that the two were synonymous. I found that food deprivation brought me to altered states of consciousness--not hunger--which rendered me more receptive to Divine intervention and a clarity that atonement was immanent.

Throughout the Torah and the writings of the Prophets, we are constantly reminded to keep God's commandments and we're duly warned of the repercussion if we fail to heed those words. The greater part of Jewish law, particularly the laws we classify as Mishpatim, the everyday laws, that concern themselves with righting a wrong or with paying for damages. From this, we might surmise that atonement is an on-going process and not necessarily a once-a-year event. If we start with Yom Kippur to become more attentive to our daily actions, perhaps then we can keep that slate clean and be sealed in the Book of Life.
G'mar Chatimah Tovah

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Month of Elul and Selichot

This year the month of Elul falls out on August 31.
The month of Elul is a time of repentance in preparation for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tradition teaches that the month of Elul is a particularly propitious time for repentance. This mood of repentance builds through the month of Elul to the period of Selichot, to Rosh Hashanah, and finally to Yom Kippur.

The name of the month, spelled in Hebrew, is said to be an acronym of "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine," a quote from Song of Songs 6:3, where the Beloved is God and the "I" is the Jewish people. In Aramaic (the vernacular of the Jewish people at the time that the month names were adopted), the word "Elul" means "search," which is appropriate, because this is a time of year when we search our hearts.

According to tradition, the month of Elul is the time that Moses spent on Mount Sinai preparing the second set of tablets after the incident of the golden calf (Ex. 32; 34:27-28). He ascended on Rosh Chodesh Elul and descended on the 10th of Tishrei, at the end of Yom Kippur, when repentance was complete. Other sources say that Elul is the beginning of a period of 40 days that Moses prayed for God to forgive the people after the Golden Calf incident, after which the commandment to prepare the second set of tablets was given

Customs of Elul
During the month of Elul, from the 2nd to the 28th day, the shofar (a hollowed out ram's horn) is blown after morning services every weekday. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. It is also not blown on the day before Rosh Hashanah to make a clear distinction between the rabbinical rule of blowing the shofar in Elul and the biblical mitzvah to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Four blasts are blown: tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah. Rambam explained the custom of blowing shofar as a wake-up call to sleepers, designed to rouse us from our complacency. It is a call to repentance. The blast of the shofar is a very piercing sound when sounded properly.

Elul is also a time to begin the process of asking forgiveness for wrongs done to other people. According to Jewish tradition, God cannot forgive us for sins committed against another person until we have first obtained forgiveness from the person we have wronged. This is not as easy a task, as you might think if you have never done it. This process of seeking forgiveness continues through the Days of Awe. Many people visit cemeteries at this time, because the awe-inspiring nature of this time makes us think about life and death and our own mortality.

As the month of Elul draws to a close, the mood of repentance becomes more urgent. Prayers for forgiveness called selichot (properly pronounced "s'lee-KHOHT," are added to the daily cycle of religious services. Selichot are recited in the early morning, before normal daily shacharit service. They add about 45 minutes to the regular daily service.

Selichot are recited from the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If Rosh Hashanah begins on a Monday or Tuesday, selichot begins on the Sunday of the week before Rosh Hashanah, to make sure that there are at least 3 days of Selichot. The first selichot service of the holiday season is usually a large community service, held around midnight on Motzei Shabbat (the night after the sabbath ends; that is, after nightfall on Saturday) . The entire community, including men, women and older children, attend the service, and rabbis give sermons. The remaining selichot services are normally only attended by those who ordinarily attend daily shacharit services in synagogue.

A fundamental part of the selichot service is the repeated recitation of the "Thirteen Attributes," a list of God's thirteen attributes of mercy that were revealed to Moses after the sin of the golden calf (Ex 34:6-7): Ha-shem [1], Ha-shem [2], God [3], merciful [4], and gracious [5], long-suffering [6], abundant in goodness [7] and truth [8], keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation [9], forgiving iniquity [10] and transgression [11] and sin [12], who cleanses [13]. Why is "Ha-shem" listed twice as an attribute? And why are three of these "attributes" Names of God? Different names of God connote different characteristics of God. The four-letter Name of God (rendered here as "Ha-shem") is the Name used when God is exhibiting characteristics of mercy, and the Talmud explains that this dual usage indicates that God is merciful before a person sins, but is also merciful after a person sins. The third attribute is a different Name of God that is used when God acts in His capacity as the almighty ruler of nature and the universe.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tisha B’Av: 9th of Av.

Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) usually occurs in the Gregorian calendar during July or August. This year it falls out on August 8, 2011. The Fast of the Ninth of Av is a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which coincidentally have occurred on the ninth of Av. The worst of the tragedies occurred on that date; most notably was the destruction of both Temples. (the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., the second by the Romans in 70 C.E.

Although this holiday is primarily meant to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, it is appropriate to consider the many other tragedies that transpired. In chronological order, its source began with the sin of the spies who lied pessimistically about the land of Israel to the Jewish nation (noted in the Book of Bamidbar). Ever since, God had given the nation real reason to mourn in correction of this lack of faith. Throughout history, the Temples burned, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Pogroms and World War I and II have all occurred on this momentous day. In the future this day of mourning will completely turn into a day of rejoicing as the true Moshiach will be born on this day removing the yoke of the nations around us.

Tisha B'Av is the culmination of a three-week period of increased mourning, beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem, before the First Temple was destroyed. During this three-week period, weddings and other parties are not permitted, and people refrain from cutting their hair. From the first to the ninth of Av, it is customary to refrain from eating meat or drinking wine (except on the Shabbat) and from wearing new clothing.

Tisha B'Av is an appropriate time for all Jews to mourn what we have lost. Many of the customs of mourning are in effect during this period, which gives us the opportunity to look deeply into our lives and mourn for what we once had. Mourning requires that we attentively observe our feelings of what has departed from our lives. There’s not much else to do but observe the feelings as they arise without fleeing from them. The more diligently we’re willing to face the feelings, the sooner they will depart from our lives. The feelings that accompany loss are often painful, but the effort of making full use of these weeks of grieving is highly cathartic and purifying. Tisha B'Av is an ideal opportunity for us to complete the process of healing as an entire community.

The restrictions on Tisha B'Av are similar to those on Yom Kippur: to refrain from eating and drinking (even water); washing, bathing, shaving or wearing cosmetics; wearing leather shoes; engaging in sexual relations; and studying Torah. Work in the ordinary sense of the word is also restricted. People who are ill need not fast on this day. Many of the traditional mourning practices are observed: people refrain from smiling, laughter and idle conversation, and sit on low stools.

In synagogue, the book of Lamentations is read and mourning prayers are recited. The ark (cabinet where the Torah is kept) is draped in black.

The physical connection of the entire Jewish people to Jerusalem comes to the forefront when King David conquered it from the Jebusites and paid for the holy site on the Temple Mount and made the city his capital. After the destruction of the First Temple, the majority of the Jewish population was swept into exile in Babylon, by whose rivers they swore to weep for Zion, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not place Jerusalem above all my joy." In the Maccabean era, the very essence of the battle for Jerusalem was to establish the Jewish nature of the city, drive out pagan practices from Temple ritual and Hellenism from public life. Under other circumstances, there might have been no national uprising against Jewish subordination to the Greeks.
The importance of Jerusalem as a national symbol grew with subsequent periods of foreign domination: during the Great Rebellion and the Bar Kochba Rebellion,coins were minted in memory of Jerusalem.

It is, however, only after the destruction of the Second Temple that the significance of Jerusalem is transformed into that which we know today— a focal point, around which Jewish life turns toward which the entire Jewish people's national aspirations and messianic hopes are directed. Thus, we find that not only is this a spiritual connection, but also a physical one: all synagogue interiors around the world are built facing Jerusalem. Indeed, the daily and festival prayers abound in references to Jerusalem in lengthy text; the liturgy contains five major blessings relating to Jerusalem, while many other community and home rituals also describe and commemorate the Holy City.

Jerusalem is the major topic of pre-modern Hebrew poetry, and the Kinot— the mediaeval and subsequent mourning liturgy of Tisha Be'av focus time and again on Jerusalem as they lament the trials of the Jewish people throughout its history of exile. As the inevitable cycle of life continues and repeats, traditions connected with Jerusalem have been enshrined to remind us that even joy is not complete without Jerusalem: a plate is broken at the signing of an engagement contract, a groom breaks a glass under the bridal canopy after the ceremony; one small section of the wall in every new house is left unplastered or unpainted - incomplete.

For generations, it was impossible for most Jews to dream of living in Jerusalem themselves, but they participated by supporting those communities which resided there, hosting guests who had travelled from Jerusalem to raise funds. This was more than a form of charity: it brought Jerusalem to everyone and everyone to Jerusalem - a way of life. Diaspora Jewish life would be incomplete without Jerusalem: the hope for redemption and for the return of the people to Eretz Yisrael has always focused on Jerusalem. It is a longing and a hope which are most poignantly felt and expressed on Tisha B' Av.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jewish Healing

By now you might be wondering what Jewish healing is all about. It grew from the concern of contemporary Jews who dedicated themselves to the benefits that accrue from living a spiritual life. Among the values derive from contact with spirit are healing, love, compassion, wisdom, abundance, creativity and intuition.

From the Kabbalah, we learn that the blessings that flows down from God is pure energy which gets transformed step by step through the spiritual worlds until it reaches our material world. Here it takes the form of the body and any interruptions or blockages in that flow manifests itself into what we call illness. Illness can take place on all levels of body, mind and spirit depending on where it gets stuck. So the first requirement of authentic Jewish healing has to be on an energetic level. The second requirement is that it be Torah based, meaning that it needs to involve specific Mitzvot such as prayer and misheberah, bikim holim (visiting the sick), doing t'shuvah (turning inward towards God), tsedakah (giving to others), the study and visualizations of selected biblical text, and the recitation of specific tehillim (psalms).

The third element to qualify healing as authentically Jewish is that it eliminates an affinity towards anything that smacks of avodah zarah -forbidden worship which means idol worship in the broadest sense, or engaging in religions outside of Judaism. Not only objects or people, but thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, convictions, etc. that binds one to pay homage to the object of devotion. So many medical and psychological theories that many of us cherish must be seen as the idolatry it is owing to strong convictions of worshiping mental constructs.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Spirituality and Healing

Jewish spirituality and healing are inextricably bound together. Healers around the world know that God is our ultimate healer; the force that enables true healing to take place. is the website dedicated to spirituality and healing.

Judaism has a lot to do with fixing things that went wrong. The Kabbalah, for example, presents us with the theory of Tikkun Olam (the rectification of the universe) to deal with the mechanics of repair. Through Kabbalah, it is believed, we can fix what went wrong with our bodies, our emotions, and our minds. Our entire existence—the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual life—emanates from the Divine realm, and provides for all of our personal needs, which we receive continuously. Many questions arise out of spiritual inquiry such as “Who am I?” “What is the purpose of my existence?” “What is the meaning of life?” “What happens to me after I die?” and a host of other similar questions that may pose a threat to our mental and emotional stability. Quite often, people, upon entering psychotherapy, find that their painful issues are not emotional but indeed spiritual.

Healing is a function of living a spiritual life. Healing can be defined as the natural process by which the body repairs itself. As an integral part of nature, we all consist of the energy of Creation. A number of terms have been coined throughout the history of healing practices to describe energy; for our purposes, we mean the vital energy, the power that energizes life. This power is synonymous with what we call God. On Shavuot, we refresh our connection to God, our healing power, by receiving His Torah.

Some of us believe that entering a spiritual path will solve our overall problems; they are often disillusioned when they find their lives have not really changed as a result of their introduction. Mysticism has always been the tool of spiritual explorers who stick with it, delving into the depths of their being, in search for an understanding of and an intimate relationship with the Creator. A grasp of Kabbalah can serve our healing efforts well however it is a long tedious journey that may last a lifetime while the practice of standard Jewish tradition—Torah, Mitzvot, and Prayer—bring about changes right now

Jewish tradition tries hard, though sometimes pitifully, to relate that the entrance to the “Gates” is the alignment of our personalities with our souls, our spiritual Self. In more familiar terms, it means aligning ourselves with God and Torah. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner put in succinctly when he wrote, “The Pentateuch is God’s Torah; each one of us is our own Torah whose purpose in life is to align our Torah to His Torah”.

You may ask, “Why traveling on the road to heaven—or biblically, the road to Canaan—is so urgently important for those on the spiritual journey”? I think that if a survey were taken to determine just what most people want in their lives, I think we would find that they want a just and moral society where people can flourish in accord with their aspirations.